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Smaller Steps Likely First in Obama Cuba Policy
Campaigning before Cuban-Americans here last spring, president-elect Barack Obama promised that if elected he'd immediately lift Bush administration restrictions on their travel back to the communist island and on the amount of money they can send home to relatives.
He is widely expected by Cuba specialists to make good on that promise, but it's unlikely he would quickly move to end or ease this country's four-decade embargo that severely restricts trade and tourism with Cuba.
Much would depend on whether Cuba responds positively to the Obama administration by releasing political prisoners, improving its human rights record or moving toward a market economy, said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor.
"If Cuba makes some sort of gesture toward the United States, it could begin a diplomatic process," Moreno said.
President George W. Bush has taken a hardline toward Cuba, imposing in 2004 tough restrictions on travel and remittances, hoping to hurt the Castro government by choking off a major source of dollars.
Cubans in the United States can only visit the island once every three years and can only send quarterly remittances of up to $300 per household to immediate family members.
Previously, they could visit once a year and send up to $3,000. The administration also tightened restrictions on travel for educational and religious groups and strengthened enforcement against travelers and businesses that subvert the embargo.
Obama has said he is open to a dialogue with Cuban President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, two years ago.
He has also said he is open to diplomacy if there was an opportunity to advance U.S. interests and the cause of freedom for Cubans and that his administration would boost economic aid to the region and work with other countries on drug trafficking and alternative energy.
Some exile groups are optimistic that Obama's regional approach to diplomacy would work.
Individual Americans sharing resources and information and networking with their Cuban counterparts would help foster democratic change on the island better than cutting off their access to friends, family and money, said Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan organization of business and civic leaders who favor opening relations with Cuba.
"It's going to be more proactive," said Francisco Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Fund, which hosted an Obama campaign stop in May.
"The policy of the Bush administration has been a wait-and-see policy in which for eight years they've been waiting and praying for the conversion of Fidel and Raul Castro to democratic leadership."
In winning Florida, Obama even prevailed in counties that re-elected three Republican Cuban-Americans known in Congress for staunchly defending hardline policies against Cuba — Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.
"The Cuban community struck a balance," Moreno said. "They liked Obama's economic message but they wanted to keep their hardline members of Congress."
The Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen de-emphasized Cuba in their campaigns, giving priority to the economy, health care and the Iraq. Cuban-Americans expect more change in those arenas than in a lingering Cold War standoff.
"We saw change from Fidel to Raul, but we see the same thing (in Cuba). Now we're seeing a refocusing for Cuban-Americans of their priorities," said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami.
The Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen oppose lifting the travel and remittance restrictions.
Mario Diaz-Balart said he looked forward to talking with the president-elect about Cuba, but that the hard-fought re-elections in districts with large Cuban-American populations were public affirmations of their representatives' positions on the island nation.
"There should be no unilateral concessions to state sponsors of terrorism — there's a strong consensus," he said.
"The question is, 'Will the president want to listen to the bipartisan consensus or will he want to listen to a small fringe group that wants to see how they can help the regime?'"
The congressman said the majority of Cuban-Americans do not support any loosening of restrictions on remittances or travel to Cuba.
Obama might not need the votes of the Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen in a Democratic Congress if he wants to force a change — but he would be ill-advised to ignore the three if he wants to keep the support of their constituents, said Susan Purcell, head of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy.
"It would depend on how he would package it — saying it's not a lifting of the embargo, saying he wants to make life easier for Americans with relatives on the island or saying that sending money to people on the island would be good for a democratic transition," Purcell said.
Orlando Gutierrez of the Cuban Democratic Directorate said Obama should maintain Cuba's isolation until the Cuban government released political prisoners or improved Internet access on the island.
However, Obama's election sends a powerful message to Cuba's civil rights movement, said Gutierrez, whose Miami-based organization receives federal funding to build international solidarity for Cuban dissidents.
"His election itself is an ideological message of how freedom and democracy are the best way to achieve equality," he said. "It's a stark contrast to the lack of change and lack of reform that exist in Cuba."